Sing your heart out and feel soul soar!
You don't have to be blessed with the skills of Charlotte Church or Bryn Terfel to enjoy a song or two.
You don't have to be blessed with the skills of Charlotte Church or Bryn Terfel to enjoy a song or two. Steven Russell finds out about an open-to-all choir whose members sing for the sheer joy of it
“IF I were Prime Minister,” laughs Bridget Cousins, “I'd make everybody sing tomorrow!” Er, think I'd have to take a raincheck as a conscientious objector, for I simply can't hit a note. “Well, you might not be confident about making a sound you felt was a good sound, but you can make a note right now.” An expectant look: an unspoken invitation to launch into the worst-ever rendition of I Will Survive or Dancing Queen. No way. Not at 9.30 in the morning. Not ever.
Bridget isn't one to give up lightly. “The voice is an instrument we've all got. It's unique to us, and it can make high sounds and low sounds, and sounds in the middle. What I do is about helping people explore that range.
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“People gain confidence. People say 'I didn't think I could sing. They chucked me out of the choir at school. I'm tone deaf,' and yet they come to natural-voice groups all over the country and find they can make a sound that is satisfying to them, and can participate.”
This isn't just theory. Bridget's conductor of and composer for Halesworth Community Choir, which opens the door wide to anyone who wants to come and sing. Male or female, young or old, as sweet-sounding as Katherine Jenkins or as grating as Catherine Tate, there's a warm welcome.
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“The thing I would emphasise is that you don't have to feel you're a good singer. We've got one or two who in the past have struggled with pitch and the sound they make, and have found that by working with the choir they can improve their own singing and get enormous satisfaction from being part of a larger group and contributing to that bigger sound.”
Tunes and songs are learned orally rather than using sheet music - members are often given a CD to listen to, with the parts recorded on it - and the choir usually sings a cappella, without musical accompaniment. “And we do make a good sound!”
So no-one gets laughed at or ticked off, then?
“Oh god, no! If they get told off, they all get told off! No, both Siân [a co-founder] and myself try to work in the most positive way possible. So we'll say 'Let's try that again . . .' rather than 'You're flat! You're rubbish!'
“There are techniques, such as to smile when you're singing and imagine the sound is coming out through your eyes rather than mouth. If you do that, you won't go flat. When we're conducting, we've got a little signal that we do and everyone goes” - she pulls a smile as wide as the River Blythe - “and the voices stay where they should be. There are lots of tricks you can learn which help you improve the sound.”
The choir has about 30 members and will usually be working towards a project, the next-up being a performance at The Cut arts centre in Halesworth in May, performing a major work being written by Bridget. Not that a climactic performance is crucial . . . nice, but not essential.
“Some of the best fun I've had in the last 10 years is with a little group I run at Yoxford Village Hall with a friend. We just sing for fun. We've got 20-25 people who come regularly. There's no pressure - and the pleasure when you can bring that group to a point where they're singing something fantastic, in an evening, is just lovely.”
The Halesworth Community Choir meets perhaps every two or three weeks, with rehearsals usually at The Cut, in large stables at a member's home, or at Halesworth's Rifle Hall.
There are seven men. The choir would love more. So why aren't there more?
“It's particularly a gender thing about the leisure habits of men, I think. When men are not at work they quite like to be at home, watching telly, with their feet up. I think that's part of it,” smiles Bridget. Choral and natural-voice singing does seem to appeal more to women, she concedes. Frankly, many men sadly feel it's all a bit too . . . well . . . girly.
“That's why Sing Up is important.” Sing Up is the Government's £40million, four-year national singing programme, aiming to raise the status of singing and increase the opportunities for primary school children to enjoy it as part of their everyday lives. “About nine, boys start dropping off,” says Bridget. “I see it. Having been really enthusiastic the week before, they say 'I'm not going to do that now.' There is this thing where men somehow think of it as a slightly effeminate activity; it's OK to be a rock musician, but it's not OK to be in a choir.”
On the plus side, the use of choral music in advertising has opened it up to a new audience.
“The nice thing about Last Choir Standing [the BBC talent show] was the diversity and variety that showed what a huge range of choral work was going on across the country. We sing when we're happy, we sing when we're sad - because it's a more powerful way of expressing ourselves than just words. When you join your voice to other people it's an immensely rewarding experience, whether that's a duet or a massive choir.”
Halesworth Community Choir started life in 2006, following a Halesworth Festival at which Siân Croose had run a singing workshop.
The first project involved a choir of some 40 people, coached and conducted by Siân and with Bridget taking care of some organisational work. She also wrote some material.
Later, she wrote Singing the River. The songs were all about the Blyth. “People seemed to really like this idea of new music being written and performed that was connected to a place,” says Bridget, who plays the violin, Celtic harp and piano. “I've a strong affinity with people who have been inspired by folk music: Britten, Vaughan Williams - those great English composers. I've kind of taken a leaf out of their book in my writing.”
For further details about the choir, call Bridget Cousins on 01502 478178
WORKING with Halesworth Community Choir is allowing Bridget Cousins to pursue some musical dreams, creating compositions inspired by East Anglia's landscape and history. She's beavering away on her latest project - working title the Ballad of Blything Hundred - which the choir plans to debut at The Cut next May.
There are songs about the white deer of Brampton and Toby Gill, the regimental drummer hanged at Blythburgh in the 18th Century for allegedly murdering a Suffolk girl.
Can she explain how she's inspired?
“Part of it is an instinctive process and part of it is a conscious process. I was talking to a Corsican singer not so long ago. There were beautiful, unique and highly ornamented songs. He got terribly poetic when he was talking about them and said 'If you look at the musical line of the song, if you look at the stave, all of our songs are like the mountains of Corsica, because the notes go up, and fiddle around here, and then they drop into the valleys and then they go up again. If you drew that score as a line, it would be our landscape.'
“I thought that was a fascinating way of describing it, and wondered how could I apply that to the Blyth. Well, the Blyth isn't actually a very deep valley, so I consciously kept to a very short range of notes. If I'd gone all dramatic, it wouldn't fit the scene. That's why I say the music comes from the place.”
Bridget grew up in a musical family in Cornwall. She studied archaeology in London and met husband-to-be Fran on a field trip. He was working in a youth hostel, shared her interest in music and dreamed of working as a shepherd. “So I went off to have babies” - two grown-up sons, now - “and be a shepherd's wife for a while. Hard work, but great fun.”
Fran's job took them to Cornwall, Somerset and then the Thetford area in 1979. Much of Bridget's working life has been in public services, with local authorities - with older people initially.
She became a home care manager in Stowmarket and then went into training and teaching, going on to teach health and social care at Lowestoft College.
It was at about that time, 1994 or so, that Bridget joined a cappella singing group run by Siân Croose. “I went not having sung in a choir for 20 years or more. By the end of the evening, to have learned three songs that we could sing in harmony, and have that tremendous sense of community, was very exciting.”
After Lowestoft College she was involved with training and development for the county council, and then organisational development - working with groups of staff on aspects such as team-building and creative problem-solving. She's recently branched out as a freelance, aiming to mix that kind of work with more music - hopefully with schools and so on. “When you walk into a playground and the children run up to you and say 'Hey, we're going to sing!' It just makes your day!”
Home since 1991 has been a village near Halesworth.
“It felt like coming home,” Bridget says of east Suffolk. “This area isn't a bit like Cornwall, but driving on my way to Lowestoft, driving past Blythburgh mere, reminded me of the Tamar estuary. You've got the mud and the changing tides.
“It's not dramatic like Cornwall, but it's got the big sky and the light, and that sense when you're on the beach of being on the edge of everything. I'm proud to be Cornish, but I'm East Anglian by adoption,” she laughs.
Name: Arlene Roberts - a 51-year-old mother of two who works part-time in Halesworth Library.
“I have always loved to sing but had not sung in public since I was a teenager. I had tried a church choir a few years ago but found it a bit limiting.
“After I had settled into house and new job I felt I needed to do something for myself after over 20 years of being immersed in family life (wife, mother but not often Arlene) and I also needed to get out there and feel part of the community. I spotted a poster in the library which asked 'Do you like to sing?' I do, so went along.
“I was quite nervous but was relieved to be very warmly welcomed. Bridget's music is wonderful; I love the original locally-themed songs (they have taught me a lot about local history and folklore). The choir has given me a real sense of belonging, achievement and confidence. I always feel happy and uplifted after singing. It is definitely good for the soul!”
Name: Tamsyn Imison. A retired comprehensive headteacher - “an active 72 year old but feel 40!” - who retired to Halesworth after working in London schools for more than 30 years.
“I did sing in my school and university choirs, but not since. That was a very long time ago.
“I joined the choir because I had so enjoyed a singing workshop at The Cut Arts Centre and found it really therapeutic - I had been ill and this boosted my confidence and helped my breathing and general sense of wellbeing. There is nothing like singing to raise one's spirits and improve one's health.”
Is it easy? “I do have to work very hard to remember the words - to sing alto, which needs me to learn contrasting parts to the main soprano parts I used to sing. I also work hard to sing in tune!”
Why is it good? “Being in the choir has been quite inspirational. Bridget's compositions are truly brilliant and make me much more aware of our local heritage, history and the beauty of our area - the Blyth Valley and the surrounding villages.
“I love being in a group of enthusiastic caring friends who all enjoy singing, which is what Bridget has created. Each concert seems to enlarge our network and we are really very proud of our high-quality delivery. We feel we are of the community and contributors to the community.”
Name: Liz Holt. A mother of a 20-month-old boy. Works part-time at New Cut Arts Centre, Halesworth, while running a home business recommending natural health products. Is 42 this month.
“I've always sung in school/church choirs. I attended jazz-singing workshops and drama school in home town of Manchester in the mid-1990s. I have since sung with Siân Croose's The Voice Project at Norwich Cathedral as part of the Norfolk & Norwich Festival.”
How did you join? “When I moved to Halesworth in 2005, I was looking around for singing groups; I attended Bridget's workshops in Yoxford and saw the 'Barleycorn' show at The Cut. I joined HCC after having my son in 2007.
“It's a great way to meet people in your community, so provides a social as well as creative outlet.”